In today's episode, we discuss New York's summer blockbuster exhibition, Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Walker is a prominent and controversial artist who makes art that comments on social problems related to race and gender. A Subtlety was the result of an invitation to make a site-specific work of installation art inside the soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and drew tens of thousands of people in two months.
Check out the Slideshow below for images that we mention in the episode. Scroll down further for our Postscript (stuff that didn't make it into the episode), including an extended discussion of process art. At the bottom of the page, you'll find News Updates on this story and Links to other sites for more information. Enjoy!
For each episode, we feature extra material on our blog. Below is our discussion of "process art" and its relation to this work.
Tina: In our discussion, Sarah and I mentioned the way that A Subtlety speaks not only to social and political issues, but also to the history of art and popular visual culture. For example, the way that the molasses dripped down the walls alluded to the historical relationship of sugar and violence, while also turning the walls into giant monochrome “paintings” (solid-color canvases made by 20th century artists like Aleksander Rodchenko, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, et al.). Notably, Walker’s work also makes reference to “process art.” This term refers to art that places more emphasis on the act of its own making than the final outcome of the artist’s actions. Historically, it emerged out of the work of Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.
Sarah: When you look up Pollock online, you’ll most likely come across photos that actually show Pollock in the process of painting, sort of dancing across the canvas and flinging paint everywhere. There was also a film of Pollock by Hans Namuth that demonstrated his process: Namuth even had him paint on a piece of glass while the camera filmed from underneath, so the viewer could really get an intimate experience of Pollock's process. Reflecting the emphasis these images placed on Pollock’s activity, the critic Harold Rosenberg referred to some of the Abstract Expressionists as “action painters,” noting that Pollock had showed that the canvas is really “an arena in which to act.”
T: The idea that (visual) art could be just as much about the “performance” of an action as a finished canvas was very influential on a younger generation of artists. Just a few years after Pollock’s death, the artist Allan Kaprow wrote that the true “legacy” of Pollock was that he “destroyed painting” and turned our attention away from the canvas and towards “the space and objects of our everyday life.” Kaprow would go on to invent “Happenings,” or loosely choreographed, sometimes participatory events during which people would be directed to do things like paint a wall or squeeze an orange. Other artists who explored process in their art include the Post-Minimalists, like Richard Serra and Robert Smithson, whose sculptures foreground or highlight the process of their own making, sometimes by obviously relying on natural forces, like gravity, to complete the work. In fact, many Post-Minimalist works are “indeterminate,” meaning that it is up to us, the viewer, to participate in the process of their making and “determine” their form.
S: So, Tina’s description of “process art” should already remind you of some of the elements of A Subtlety that we have discussed––for example, the fact that molasses ran down the walls of the Domino Sugar Factory, pulled by gravity in unpredictable ways. Here, process is linked to degradation, which you could also see with the figures themselves, as we discussed in the podcast (and which you can also see in the images in the Slideshow above). The apparent violence of the heat on these figures further underscored the point of A Subtlety: that we should acknowledge the grueling process of the sugar industry and the effects it had on certain bodies.
T: In other words, Kara Walker does the same thing with process art that she does with the monochrome: she co-opts a method that, on the surface, seems to be very apolitical, and makes it political, while still engaging the history of art and providing a powerful aesthetic experience.
Creative Time's website for Kara Walker's "A Subtlety" (including their Curatorial Statement)
Google's virtual tour of Kara Walker's "A Subtlety"
Creative Time's video of Kara Walker's "A Subtlety"
June 30: Alyssa Rosenberg, "Selfie Culture and Kara Walker's 'A Subtlety,'" Washington Post
August 8: OITNB star visits Kara Walker's exhibit, misses point
Oct. 14: Kara Walker's Sugar Sphinx Will Knock Our Chelsea, Artnet
Nov. 20: It turns out Kara Walker and her sugar sphinx were watching us the whole time, HuffPost